Your clients traditionally looked to you for expert recommendations and advice on building materials and design alternatives. But now they want that expertise for all things green. A client who says “I want a green home” may not have the foggiest notion of what that means at the product/material/design level. This can be a daunting task, as you stroll store aisles or browse Sweets, staring at a gallery of third-party green ratings and manufacturers’ claims.

Part of the answer to your confusion may lie in the staff training offered by Ritz-Carlton Hotels. When the Ritz-Carlton Hotels trains new staffers, they don’t run them through long lists of specific actions. Instead they teach a principle: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” Any action in accordance with this principle is the right path for the Ritz.

We also need to keep principles in mind – green principles. And we need to adhere to these principles when designing and specifiying product.

My green principles are universal: Use less energy; use less water; don’t poison the air anywhere; avoid buying things that poison the world when they are made or shipped; buy from responsible manufacturers.

That said, you do need some baseline knowledge and an overview of third-party labels. So, here’s a quick 10-point primer to help you along, but also visit or for great resources and guidance. (Full disclosure, both companies are/have been my clients.)  

1) Use zero- or low-VOC paints, finishes, sealants, caulks, and adhesives. Low-cost, durable, green products are widely available. The Environmental Protection Agency sets compliance standards. NAHB’s NGBS and LEED require VOC-compliant products.

2) Use formaldehyde-free or no-added formaldehyde lumber products. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, but it’s also common to find hardwood plywood and even OSB that doesn’t contain it. Most batt insulation is now formaldehyde-free.

3) Increase duct efficiency in forced-air systems up to 15 percent by sealing duct seams. Use widely available low-VOC duct sealants.

4) Use isocyanate- or formaldehyde-free foams, and have low- or no-VOCs. For whole-house applications, don’t guess which foam to use (closed-cell vs. open-cell). They perform differently. Bring in an expert. 

5) Not many homeowners like white roofs, but they drive down cooling costs. Now, with new granule technology, even gray shingles can reflect 20 percent solar energy; they’re even Energy Star rated. Also, use radiant barriers to block heat.

6) Use certified lumber. It’s frankly hard to buy lumber that isn’t certified with programs like SFI, FSC, American Tree Farm or CSA. But avoid using non-plantation-grown tropicals.

7) New carpets don’t have to be poisonous. Look for CRI Green Label and Green Label Plus (used to be called CRI and CRI-Plus) to ensure homeowners aren’t quaffing formaldehyde or 4-phenylcyclohexene.

8) For plastic deck and trim, look for products that are recyclable, certified for recycled content (check GreenSeal), and are made by companies committed to recycling programs.

9) Don’t skimp on the thermal envelope. Ensuring a building burns as little fuel as possible over its lifetime is the greenest thing you can do. After all the VOCs have flashed off, and the forests have grown back, the house will be around for decades, even centuries, burning fuel each year of its life.

10) Avoid exotic products; instead, focus on sound building practices. Green building is about using greener versions of traditional building products. Don’t be lured away by crazy inventions that claim to be green.

Keep these 10 tips close at hand for easy referral when a client asks about a green house. They will guide your building principles and provide direction within the green maze.   

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